The milk run was icy and hard-packed. Skis crunched rhythmically against freshly-frozen powder as Ben descended the mountain, his mind pulsating with blood and adrenaline as he pushed on. As he skirted dangerously close around a column of blue spruce, branches flicked against his arm like fingers attempting to throw him off-balance, but he quickly righted himself and continued his rapid descent, hungry for the thrill. The brittle morning air stung his exposed cheeks and mouth. He was thankful for the Colorado sun which penetrated through the thinly-veiled April sky.
There were very few skiers out, just Ben and several other early-risers who were eager for the milk run. Bryan, much more of a novice at the sport, was somewhere behind him, undoubtedly slewing the air with curses for having followed him on the black diamond slope. But at that moment, Ben didn’t give a damn. He continued on, thankful for the exhilaration of physical activity, grateful for the chance to clear his head and not be plagued by the constant barrage of screenplays, media schedules, tabloid reporters. Christine…
That morning, sliding down Ajax was goddamn medicinal.
Nearing the bottom of the slope, he accelerated his slalom to gain one final surge of power. Instantly felt the strain in his calves. Below him, the lodgepole pine and river rock ski resort beckoned his arrival, plumes of smoke lazily ascending from its chimneys – a welcoming sight on such a cold morning. Scraping to a halt near the flagstone terrace, a cloud of snow billowed up behind him just as another skier threw him sideways with a powerful force. The two bodies landed in the snow and were instantly entangled in poles and skis, struggling against each other like sparring elk.
When Ben finally managed to pull free, he lifted his goggles and discovered Bryan there, cursing and fighting against the ski poles still attached to his wrists. Letting out a laugh, Ben gave him a hard punch on the arm, which was mostly lost in the down-filling of the fabric. Bryan stopped to look at him through goggles slanted at an odd angle on his face. “You’re an asshole.”
The feeling was mutual. Which was why they got along so well. The two men’s collective propensity for sarcasm and practical jokes had formed a bond between them during the production of ‘Swell’ a year and a half prior, when numerous off-color pranks between takes of rigorous swordfishing scenes had been vital to their sanity. Now, Bryan was not only Ben’s closest friend but also slated to become his brother-in-law. Apparently, Ben’s sister appreciated the man’s sarcasm, charm, and wit, too, despite Ben’s attempts at convincing her otherwise.
While Bryan continued to disentangle himself, Ben removed his skis and stuck them upright in the snow. Stood and brushed himself off and then offered a hand, but Bryan waved him off in irritation. He unhooked his skis and tossed them aside and then stumbled up to the terrace in a limp. Landing heavily into one of the deck chairs, he gingerly brought his right leg up to rest it on the seat of an adjacent chair and winced. Ben stooped to gather all of their ski equipment and joined him.
A wood fire blazed in a large stone fire pit nearby, and Ben chose to sit in the chair closest to it, craving its warmth. His gloves and goggles and ski cap landed on the table, and he ran a hand through his unruly hair in a futile attempt to appear halfway decent. Bryan did likewise but still spoke nothing to him. The harshness of the run must have really pissed him off, Ben thought. I shouldn’t have bullied him into taking it.
Pulling out a pair of sunglasses from his ski pants to slide them on, he noticed a server from inside the resort appear, wearing a white button-up shirt and burgundy tie – no jacket, no hat, despite the frigid morning. He approached the two men and inquired if they needed anything, and Bryan immediately grumbled, “Bushmills, straight up.” Ben glanced at him, surprised by his choice of whiskey so early in the day. The guy must have really been in pain. Or pissed. Or both. He sat massaging his kneecap, squinting his brown, gold-flecked eyes against the bright sun.
“Just Earl Grey for me,” Ben said.
The terrace was fairly empty. Only a few early risers in ski garb, preparing for their own run on the slopes. No one glanced their way, and Ben was thankful for it. The last thing either of them needed at that moment was a pack of autograph-seekers descending upon them, demanding attention and conciliatory behavior, which neither of them felt like mustering.
The grimace on Bryan’s face remained hardened. “You doing okay?” Ben asked.
Bryan squinted at him. “No. It fucking hurts.”
“Should we get back?”
Bryan shook his head and sat forward to carefully move his leg down from the opposing chair. As he unclasped his ski boot, Ben helped to pull it off. The man winced and sat back, gingerly swinging his leg back up for support. “Maybe you broke something,” Ben said, irritated now by the inconvenience of the injury. It meant their skiing would be cut short.
“I’ll be all right,” Bryan muttered. Neither were convinced.
The server appeared with their beverages. While pouring Earl Grey into Ben’s mug, he made small talk, discussing Ajax, the weather, banal topics. Ben unzipped a side pocket of his pants, pulled out a clip of money, and handed him more than enough to cover the bill and a generous tip. “Keep the change,” he instructed.
The server smiled and tucked the bills into his pocket. “Thank you, Mr. Mansfield.”
Although he shouldn’t have been surprised that the server knew his name, when it was spoken, Ben experienced a double-take. Recognition still managed to occasionally take him by surprise, even now, even after his recent notoriety of film awards for ‘Roustabout’ and the dizzying maze of media he was forced to navigate through – journalists here, paparazzi there, everyone wanting a piece of him, constantly, which was why this ski vacation was so crucial.
“Good day to you, gentleman,” the server said. Before turning to leave, he gave Bryan a nod as though he recognized him also but couldn’t precisely recall the name or place the face, which happened to poor Bryan more often than he would have liked. Whereas Ben stood out in a crowd on almost every occasion, his friend and future brother-in-law tended to blend in like the pattern of wallpaper. With his wiry brown hair and furrowed brow, Bryan sometimes looked older and surlier than his 27 years should have.
Ben raised his Earl Grey in the gesture of a toast. “Here’s to surviving the black diamond run, Jensen.”
Bryan studied his friend’s face for a long moment, as if debating whether or not to punch him, but then he cracked a small smile. It was the first smile Ben had seen on him since they’d left the resort that morning. Tapping his rock glass against the ceramic mug, he replied, “Next time, I choose the fucking slope, got it?”
* * * * *
It took some time for Audra to stop being angry at Ben for Bryan’s injury. When they’d first returned to the hotel after visiting the resort medic, she’d stood in the middle of their suite with hands on her hips, bristling with disapproval. “Just because you’re a daredevil doesn’t mean you need to drag Bryan along for the ride,” she’d spat, dark hair falling across crystal blue eyes.
Sometimes, when Ben peered down at his sister, it was like looking into a mirror; they were paternal twins in many regards, separated only by three years. Same azure eyes, same black hair, same broad cheekbones, same lips that naturally upturned at the edges like furtive grins, even when they were mad. The similar genes shared between the two siblings were unmistakable. The stubbornness they each possessed even more so.
“I don’t know why you’re blaming me for this,” Ben had snapped. “He followed me down that slope of his own volition. He crashed into me. I should be the one who’s pissed here, he cut my fucking ski day short.”
Although they typically got along well, occasionally Audra liked to assert a superior-older-sibling routine – especially now, with pregnancy hormones coursing through her petite frame. She was only in her first trimester, but already she was impatient, malevolent and frequently successful at making Ben feel like shit.
Bryan’s tumble had resulted in a torn knee ligament. He iced it, wore a brace, and used crutches to help him get around. But he chose to remain in the hotel, popping painkillers and watching movies with Audra. Due to the cloud of guilt that shrouded him, Ben hung around, too, playing cards and raiding the bar in their suite and in his own, discovering new concoctions for Kahlua and whiskey and vodka and Coke until his stomach and head pulsated.
Eventually, restlessness and boredom sank in. Depression soon followed. He longed to be out on the slopes again. After all, that was the whole goddamn point of coming to Aspen – to ski and snowboard – and they still had several more days left on the trip before heading back home, which Ben wasn’t even remotely looking forward to.
It was during an evening heads-up poker game in Ben’s suite that Bryan finally acknowledged his friend’s anxiety. “Why the fuck are you hanging around, Ben?”
Concentrating on the cards in his hand, Ben shrugged. He didn’t have shit to play, and he’d already lost close to two hundred bucks.
“You should be downstairs finding a ski bunny,” Bryan continued. “You’ve been here for four days and you haven’t fucked anyone yet.”
Ben looked at him over his cards and chuckled.
“What’s so funny?” Bryan demanded.
“What makes you think I haven’t?”
“Because you’ve been here. Acting pathetic. Getting shit-faced drunk.”
Did he appear so desperate? Maybe. Probably. But at that point, Bryan was hardly an expert on the subject; Ben knew for a fact that due to Audra’s pregnancy and her undulating hormones, she hardly let him touch her. He was projecting his own sexual frustrations onto Ben.
Unexpectedly, Bryan threw his cards face down on the table and said, “Enough. Let’s quit while I’m ahead.” He gathered all of the money he’d acquired and stuffed it messily into his pants pocket. Audra had long since retired to their suite; her morning sickness had become a morning, noon and night condition for her. Due to the high altitude, she was also plagued with headaches. At one point, Ben had suggested that they all fly home early, because it would have been better than remaining cooped up in the hotel, but they’d both insisted on staying, claiming it was worth being in Aspen just to admire the view from the window.
“Well.” Bryan hoisted himself up from the chair and hobbled on his crutches to the door that separated their rooms. “I’m going to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.” He stopped midway with his hand on the doorknob and grinned devilishly before adding, “Or perhaps I won’t see you in the morning, eh?”
Ben shook his head. Laughed at the idiot. “Sure, gonna go right out and find me some pussy, Jensen. Thanks for the suggestion.”
Bryan’s smile widened. He saluted Ben sharply, wishing him good luck and good night, then shut the door behind him. Ben was left to his own devices and the quiet drone of the television: April 2005, Pope John Paul II’s death, and his supposed successor being announced by a banal reporter on PBS Newshour. Shutting the program off, he turned and pulled the curtain of the sliding glass door aside to peer out. The Aspen Mountain gondola was brightly lit, returning its late-night passengers from the slopes. Soon it would shut down for the night, everyone would return to where they’d come from, and the mountain would be bathed in darkness. A melancholic thought that didn’t sit well with him.
Turning from the window, he stood and surveyed the room, looking for something but not knowing what until he spotted his Blackberry. Bringing it to life, he peered at the messages, hoping to find… What? There were multiple reminders from his agent regarding a screenplay she’d been urging him to read and one message from his friend, Austin, letting him know that he’d fed the dogs several times and taken them for runs on the beach. Nothing more. What was he expecting? For Christine to call and say, “Hey, let’s try one more time, and this time it’s going to work, Ben, I just know it”?
Because it was never going to fucking work, and the reality of that was a bitter pill for Ben to swallow. The couple had attempted, and failed, so many times in their extensive on-and-off relationship. Merely thinking about it now caused Ben’s head to spin. Not to mention all of the others, both during and in between the tumultuous relationship: friendly fucks with acquaintances, numerous one-night-stands with strangers, drifting in and out of women’s beds like doorways, never feeling fully satisfied. “You’ll never find what you’re looking for, Ben,” Christine had said the last time their intimacy had ended in defeat, after the abortion had consumed them both in depression and bitterness. At the time, Ben had felt angry and defensive at her statement, because he couldn’t fathom what the hell she’d meant by it. Now, he began to wonder if there had been validity to her words.
Shoving the phone into his pocket, he stepped into the bathroom to splash cold water over his face. His reflection in the oversized mirror looked haunting: unruly black hair, thick facial stubble, dark circles beneath his usually expressive blue eyes. “What the hell are you doing, dumbass?” The resonance of his outburst echoed back to him from the marble tile. With a surge of renewed determination, he stripped out of his wrinkled clothes and pulled on a fresh pair of blue jeans and a black cashmere sweater he’d picked up in Milan. Slipping the keycard into his down-filled parka, he quickly exited the room, allowing the heavy door to slam behind him.
The night air was biting cold, but the dry Colorado atmosphere somehow helped make the freezing temperature more bearable. Ben shivered involuntarily and pulled the wool scarf tighter around his neck. Longed for a cigarette even though he hadn’t picked up a pack since the filming of ‘Roustabout’. As soon as he stepped from the curb of the front drive, the doorman, dressed smartly in a dark burgundy cap and great coat, offered to signal him a cab. Ben waved him off. Said, “No thank you,” and continued to make his own way down the sidewalk.
The hotel was centrally located, so Ben didn’t have very far to walk before reaching the small but active nightlife area of Aspen. Bars, restaurants and dance clubs were lit up like Christmas trees. Despite the cold and the late hour, music and conversation resounded from the open balconies and doorways. Almost every establishment offered exterior heating lamps to keep the clientele warm and happy. Ben contemplated going into a couple of the clubs but changed his mind with each one he passed.
He wasn’t sure where he was headed and soon began to wonder what the hell he was even doing, wandering around in the frozen tundra. But eventually he found himself standing in front of an all-night diner. Its interior walls were paneled in wood, its tables covered in plastic red-and-white checkered tablecloths. An old country tune wafted out through its partially-opened windows. The place was a complete oddity among the string of gourmet restaurants and designer boutiques surrounding it. Where the hell did I just end up…?
The moment the scintillating aroma of steak and onions hit Ben’s nostrils, he realized how famished he was. A bell jangled above his head as he pushed the door open and stepped inside. As warm air hit his face, he pulled the scarf from around his neck and glanced around. For such a late hour, there was a surprising amount of people devouring steaming platefuls of breakfast and dinner. Out of habit, he slipped his sunglasses on – a routine he’d acquired when the paparazzi had started appearing on every street corner to take his picture. He didn’t mind the pictures, and he didn’t mind saying hello to people, but tonight, he preferred to go unnoticed.
The hostess, an older, jovial woman with rosy cheeks and bouffant hairdo, appeared from around the corner and smiled at his arrival. “Just one tonight, honey?” she inquired, grabbing a menu from the rack on the wall. The cliché of her get-up made him think she was in character for a movie, and he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the absurdity of it.
“Yes. Just one.”
Ben followed her to the rear of the room. She directed him to a corner booth, somewhat secluded from the other tables. His sunglasses and demeanor must have clued her in to his desire to be left alone, and he was grateful for her intuition. “Specials are up on the board,” she said, gesturing to a chalkboard hanging from the ceiling. “Tracy’ll be your server tonight.”
Tracy appeared almost immediately, pad and pen in hand, ready to take his order. She was young, around nineteen, blonde hair, cute face, chewing on a piece of gum while she asked if he wanted anything to drink. Despite the late hour, Ben had an urge for some shit diner coffee. “And I’ll take your breakfast special up there,” he added, gesturing to the chalkboard. “Eggs over easy and wheat toast. No bacon.”
She smiled sweetly, disappeared, returned a moment later with his coffee. He tore open several packets of creamer and poured them into the mug. Watched the spoon slowly swirl the white liquid until his mind fell into a strange state of hypnotism. He was tired, still drunk, and suffering from general life burnout. In an attempt to shake the cobwebs away, he sat up straighter in the booth. Gave his thigh a hard pinch. The coffee was scalding hot as it hit his tongue, but he sipped at it anyway. It also tasted like shit, just as he’d anticipated. Perfect.
Through the polarized lenses of his sunglasses, he studied the room. Noted a party of a dozen people near the front of the restaurant, tables pushed together, numerous pitchers of beer being passed around. Most were his age or younger, early twenties, an equal mix of girls and guys, all perfect and beautiful and dressed in designer clothing; sons and daughters of millionaires on skiing holiday. That was what Aspen represented, why the rich and famous traveled there, why every eatery and boutique in town catered to the wealthy crowd.
And I’m one of them.
This brief self-analysis left him feeling empty – like a skeletal shell devoid of marrow. He pushed the sunglasses to the top of his head and shrugged out of his parka. Two young girls and a guy sat together at a table forward and to the left of him. The girls were thirteen or fourteen, wearing tight blouses and low-rise blue jeans, a hint of thong panties showing up above their waists. Each girl sat turned away from him, talking and giggling to one another. The man seated with them, who Ben guessed to be around his own age, leaned casually back in his chair, spinning a toothpick between his lips, staring off as if daydreaming or trying to tune out the girls’ conversation. What struck Ben the most was his appearance: all cowboyed-out in blue jeans and western snap shirt. A faded, yet visible, battle scar followed a crooked path from the tip of his left eyebrow down to his earlobe, barely covered by a muss of blonde hair.
He looked rough and bucolic, like a cowpoke who’d taken a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in Aspen instead of Amarillo. Similar to the hostess of the restaurant, this man was all clichés. Ben couldn’t look away.
With a quick glance, the guy noticed Ben, and suddenly he was eyeballing Ben right back. The toothpick pinched between his lips was soon to become splinters. Immediately, Ben averted his gaze. Leaned back against the red vinyl cushion of the booth and brought the coffee mug to his lips, trying to appear casual. Briefly, he considered slipping his sunglasses back on, but then thought, What’s the point now?
A twangy song from the annals of country western music poured out from the ceiling speakers, further adding to the eclectic interior of the café. Is any of this even fucking real..? Had it not been for the ritzy clientele, Ben would have thought he was back on set in West Texas again, watching the endless dusty wind whistle through some small podunk town while nicotine burned at the back of his throat.
Instinctively, he returned his gaze to the cowboy. A scuffed boot was propped up on an empty chair, a half-consumed pint of beer was cupped in his hands. The two girls with him were still giggling together, oblivious to anyone else’s presence, but the guy seemed indifferent to it. His sights were set squarely on Ben. The corners of his mouth were upturned with an insidious grin. Ben half-expected him to walk over, introduce himself, and tell him that Toby didn’t know shit about bullriding or rouchnecking or some such thing. But he didn’t. Just sat there, sipping his beer, candidly sharing eye contact.
Tracy appeared with breakfast, all smiles and bright eyes, her ponytail playfully swooshing against her shoulders as she set the steaming plate of eggs and greasy potatoes down in front of Ben. After pulling out bottles of ketchup and hot sauce from her apron pockets, she placed the bill face-down on the corner of the table and said, “No rush.” Ben thanked her and commented on everything looking delicious. Then he noticed that she was now staring down at him like a deer caught in headlights.
“Hey!” she exclaimed. “Aren’t you in that queer roughneck movie?”
Ben cringed but managed a smile. Always the diplomat, he refused to let his hatred for the obnoxious phrase show. Reducing the deeper significance of ‘Roustabout’ to a mere quip about queer roughnecks was an insult. It had been an insult for months, and yet it continued to be everyone’s go-to description for the award-winning film. “Yes,” he replied.
“Wow!” She leaned the palm of her hand against the table and pushed her hip against the tablecloth, as if planning to stay awhile. His food smelled delicious and called out to him, but the awkwardness of the moment prevented him from indulging. He smiled up at her. Twirled his fork between his fingers. Tried to clue her into his desire to eat, but she just stood there, smacking on her gum. “So what was it like knocking around with Seth Cronin?” Her question was voiced loud enough for the majority of patrons to hear, even over the twangy country music.
Her question seemed to be the most popular query of the century – one Ben had answered a hundred times during a hundred different interviews during the past year. The film’s gritty, emotional story of two young oil field roughnecks dealing with homophobia, retribution and suicide had touched a resounding nerve in everyone across the globe: Cannes, Sundance, Toronto. People were still trying to come to terms with its resounding impact.
Inwardly, Ben sighed at the waitress. Outwardly, he flashed his brightest smile and remained composed and polite, just like the stellar performer he was. “Well, you know… Seth’s a brilliant actor, and we both took our roles very seriously. Those scenes weren’t as intimate as most people think. We were surrounded by film crew the entire time, it was awkward and cold, and we had to do multiple takes…” He rambled on for a bit to appease her curiosity and noticed the cowboy smirking at him, as though he could hear every word of their conversation. Ben rolled his eyes in playful sarcasm, and the man chuckled. Lifted his beer up as if in a toast to his misery.
Then the two teenage girls sitting with the cowboy turned in their chairs, noticed Ben, and screeched, “Oh my God!” simultaneously, bringing the commotion of the café to a complete halt.